Timeless Chaplin

A landmark

Vittorio De Sica was attending a special screening of The Great Dictator. Watching the last scene where Paula Goddard looks up to the sky and the background voice assures her that days of tyranny are over, De Sica was spellbound. The trendsetter of neo-realism confessed in sheer admiration he could never match the cinematic excellence of Sir Charles Chaplin. The same view has been endorsed by Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut.

Chaplin is unanimously considered the pioneer of cinema, which went far beyond entertaining. His films are timeless and bear the testimony of the proletariat’s protest against the ruling class. Rulers and those who were at the helm of administration treated the common man and working class like animals. This was superbly explained by Chaplin in the opening two shots of Modern Times, truly the height of satire.  

Bold themes

Why did Chaplin move away from the common path of escapist entertaining and take to a form of cinema which was diametrically opposite to populism? He strongly believed larger than life characters, stories of jingoism mixed with razzmatazz were never his forte. He believed in projecting the cause of the downtrodden, artistically mingling smiles with tears and winning countless hearts.

In many ways, Chaplin is unique. The themes he experimented with were far beyond the reach of many high caliber filmmakers. Sir David Lean once said that films by Chaplin were textbooks for umpteen directors like Sir Lean himself. Referring to Gold Rush, Sir Lean specially admired Chaplin’s concern for humanity and leaving life with respect. Satyajit Ray considered Gold Rush amongst his all-time favourites.  

The moments of laughter suddenly giving way to immense grief in City Lights, Limelight and The Kid are incomparable. A unique body language supported with a highly mobile face and expressive eyes made Chaplin the greatest serio comedian ever. He was at his altruistic best emoting in silence. His inimitable attire of loose fitting trousers matched with a coat, cap and stick in hand with a smile made him what he was. Chaplin mastered every art of filmmaking — scripting, directing, acting and composing music. In Hollywood, no one dared to attempt socialist themes like Chaplin.

Not that he was beyond criticism. Marshal Joseph Stalin walked out of a prestigious theatre at Moscow after watching The Great Dictator. He termed the film sheer buffoonery, as he never supported Chaplin’s antics projecting dreaded Adolf Hitler as a character to be laughed at. Chaplin did confess later he should not have attempted comedy with Hitler. Jean Luc Goddard relies much more on Sergei Eisenstein’s works as the Bible of cinema than those of Chaplin’s.

It is simply impossible to pinpoint who is more effective — Chaplin or Eisenstein. The poignancy of City Lights touches hearts as much as the mass commitment of General Line compels us to think and protest. The tragedy of Gold Rush shows the unknown darker sides of life equally as Battleship of Potemkin inspires revolution against despotism. Realistic images, which convey grave human concern, are strengths of both. None neglected the struggler, the voices of the oppressed.

Both Chaplin and Eisenstein were good friends and highly respected each other’s works. Pudovkin and Tarkovsky believed and experimented with cinema different to that of Chaplin. Federico Fellini believed that Chaplin’s works were thought-provoking and touching with equal balances. World War II and the Cold War both moved Chaplin. After Khrushchev’s dreaded act of declaring Marshal Joseph Stalin a dictator and traitor of the Soviet Union, Chaplin understood that fake socialism would collapse.

Prolific filmmaker

According to many, Chaplin’s most commendable work is Monsieur Verdoux. He exposed the destructive bourgeoisie and its evil intentions drastically, dedramatising the climax with a control unknown to cinematic language. Also his best performance indeed, which had him twitching his eyebrows in perfect harmony with his facial veins and portions of his chin.

Sophia Loren admits it was Chaplin who taught her to say no to too many unwanted films. She also confessed he taught her the art of self control. Yet, in all fairness to both the greats, their combination did not yield the desired results in A Countess From Hong Kong. The film did not come up to its expectations.

Chaplin was always for the people, of the people and with the people. He is criticised for a bloated ego. That never came in his way of interacting with Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. On the occasion of the centenary of his first film’s release, Chaplin will be fondly remembered and admired worldwide as the creator of smiles, which were so well supported by tears.

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